School funding in limbo as Gov. LePage refuses to implement Question 2

School funding in limbo as Gov. LePage refuses to implement Question 2

Governor Paul LePage and Maine Republicans are apparently having trouble deciding which election outcomes should or should not be respected, with Mainers treated to the strange spectacle of a governor twice elected by fewer than half of Mainers refusing to honor ballot initiaves that a majority approved.

That’s bad enough. But leave it to LePage to double down against the will of the people with a budget that does the exact opposite of what was voted into law. When voters said that they wanted a tax on the wealthiest Mainers to provide much-needed funds to public schools and ease the property tax burden for everyone, he somehow interpreted that to mean that the wealthiest among us (who received hefty tax breaks in 2011 and 2015) are due yet another break.

The Maine constitution does not afford the governor veto power over ballot initiatives, which become law the moment the vote is certified in the affirmative. Like any law on the books, the legislature has the power to make changes as it sees fit, which the governor can then sign or not when it lands on his desk.

But it is another thing entirely to ignore the outcome of an election as if it never happened.

Though LePage may sneer at the 10,000-vote margin that put Question 2 over the top, an equally slim margin of victory propelled him to the statehouse in 2010 (with that infamous 37.6% share of the vote). Followed by a sub-majority 2014 reelection win and a current one-vote partisan advantage in one of the two houses, he hardly has a mandate from Mainers to go full autocrat. Of course, he doesn’t care, and that’s the problem.

“It’s a dangerous precedent for democracy,” said John Kosinski of the Maine Education Association, who managed the campaign for Question 2. “It’s not accurate for him to say that his budget is simply ‘delaying implementation’ when Republican legislators have already introduced seven bills to undo it.”

None of them, however, seem to be calling into question the validity of their own election by simple majority on the very same November ballot.

The necessity of Question 2 arose from a successful 2004 ballot measure whose implementation has been slow-walked for over a decade by lawmakers. Designed to ease the property tax burden, it requires that 55% of public school funding is to come from the state. While there was a good faith effort early on to reach that target, rising steadily to 52.8% by 2009, it has since fallen back to an average of 47% under the LePage tax cuts.

School board and municipal leaders campaign for Question 2 before the election.

Since the governor showed no interest in honoring the 2004 citizen-approved law, thus transferring the weight of school funding back onto property owners and widening the funding gap between wealthy and poor districts, a more direct and specific funding mechanism was needed. Question 2 places a 3% tax on incomes over $200,000 and earmarks that money for a dedicated fund for the “direct support of student learning” in pre-Kindergarten through grade 12 public schools. The estimated $157 million raised annually cannot be used for non-teacher salaries and, more importantly, cannot be siphoned into the general fund.

In sum, it’s a tax on the top 2% of Mainers that’s intended to lower property taxes for the other 98% while making school funding more equitable. A person making $300,000 will pay an extra $3,000 into a pot that is distributed to districts in all corners of the state in the effort to get all schools closer to that 55% mark.

One of the opposition’s favorite claims against Question 2 was that 60% of the money it would raise would go to 12 of the biggest districts (most of which are in the wealthier coastal south), further cutting out rural districts from their share of the state’s pie.

Kosinski said that such a claim is playing fast and loose with the facts.

He pointed out that Washington County, home to 3% of the students in the state, will see a 16% increase in state funding from this law. In a place where the median household income is $38,000 (and only $21,000 per capita) and the poverty rate is pushing 19%, the double-shot of property tax relief and better-funded schools would seem to be welcome news to its middle-class residents.

Nevertheless, LePage is yet again going to bat for the wealthiest Mainers instead, most of whom live far from our easternmost county. Already, someone making a $40,000 annual salary is paying the same top state tax rate as a person making $1 million. (If that smells flat-taxy to you, you’re not alone.)

According to an analysis by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, the proposed budget would cut said millionaire’s taxes by more than $22,000 while raising that $40,000 earner’s tax bill by $90. One gets a new jetski; the other is out a week of groceries for his family.

But the giveaways don’t stop there. LePage’s budget would drop estate tax revenue from $16.3 million down to just $3.1 million by 2019, a cut that must be made up elsewhere. Throw in a reduction in corporate tax rates and retirement income for the wealthiest pensioners and an increase in the sales tax, not to mention already high property taxes if the governor successfully shuts down Question 2, and the economic anxiety of middle class Mainers will only worsen.

And, for the cherry on top, LePage’s budget eliminates the current school funding formula – rated among the most equitable in the country despite his efforts to prove otherwise – and offers no replacement. Repeal and replace. With what? Nobody knows.

But that’s how the GOP governs these days. If Republicans want to restore our faith in elections, they should start by accepting results that are inconvenient to them rather than attempting to sabotage the will of the majority. The people have spoken. If LePage doesn’t want to listen, too bad.

The next legislative committee hearing will be on March 3rd in Augusta. Visit the Stand up for Students Facebook page for details.

About author

Russell Wilson
Russell Wilson 6 posts

Russell Wilson is a freelance writer based in Portland. He is a former educator and recently graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism.

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